I remember, back in high school, tofu was a bad word; the butt of many jokes, at the very least. It was in high school, I learned the ins and outs of using tofu as a literary device, a practical joke, and a visual pun. What was an Asian girl to do? I devoured my tofu in secrecy, lest I become part of the joke. No, people weren't so on board with the concept of tofu back then, not like now. Today, tofu, tofu derivatives, and soy-based meat replacement products constitute a multi-million dollar industry, catering to vegetarians, the lactose-intolerant, the health-conscious, and any number of the growing population of allergy sufferers. And that's just in the United States.
Soy products, of course, are practically a staple in Asia, providing a low-fat, inexpensive source of protein, vitamins and minerals to an extremely large populous. Many health-conscious Americans embraced tofu in recent years for exactly these reasons, yet, surprisingly, a large number still don't quite know what to make of this mystery ingredient. What is tofu, exactly? I remember one of my friends scrunching up her nose as I sliced into a block of tofu I, just minutes before, meticulously dried in paper towels. She had exactly the same question. "Basically," I replied, "it's cheese. Vegan cheese." She raised a dubious eyebrow. As strange as it may seem, that's essentially what it is; not too far off from traditional paneer.
Just as one might make cheese at home, heating milk and adding a coagulant (acid for cow's milk, calcium or magnesium compounds for soy milk) to curdle the milk solids, one may also technically do the same with soy milk to make tofu. Soy milk, much like cow's milk is a colloidal suspension of fats, proteins, and water, so it behaves in much the same way. The resulting soy curds from this process are basically what make up the block of tofu you buy at the store. The firmness indicates the amount of coagulant used, which can result in either tight or loose packing of proteins within the tofu block.
One of the main complaints I hear about tofu usually relates to its taste and texture; or the lack thereof. I hear stories of people chopping it up and putting it into salads, or dipping it into soy sauce and eating it raw. Although there's absolutely nothing wrong with consuming tofu like this, I will agree that it's not terribly tasty that way. While tofu does make an excellent meat substitute, the bottom line is that tofu and meat possess very different properties, and the key to consistently preparing tofu well is to understand these properties and use them to your advantage.
First, let's start with the similarities. Using the right firmness and prepared properly, meat and tofu have a similar texture. A trick some people use for tofu cutlets is to pre-slice extra firm tofu, freeze the slices, and thaw them before use. Doing this creates more of a "meaty" texture within the tofu. Tofu, like meat, marinates very well. Tofu can be grilled, stir-fried, broiled, baked, slow-cooked, or deep fried, similarly to meat. Yes, all this is possible with tofu, provided you take into account the differences.
First of all, unlike meat, tofu has no flavor of its own. This is a very important consideration, because, unlike cooking meat, where the objective is to enhance its flavor, there is absolutely nothing to enhance with tofu. When you cook tofu, you will be adding flavor, not contributing to it. Second, unlike meat, tofu is not composed of fibers; it more or less is one solid block of protein. For this reason, although tofu will marinate well, it will not marinate the same way beef, for instance, because there is no capillary action taking place within the fibers that will draw the marinade in. When marinating tofu, use a marinade with a good amount of salt to help with the uptake of the marinade (think osmosis here), cut the pieces small, and be generous with your time. If you're short on time and marinating is not an option, it's possible to speed up the process significantly by braising it, which is traditionally how tofu is cooked in Asia. To braise tofu, place small, bite-sized pieces into a hot wok with seasonings and add broth. Allow the tofu to sit and simmer, undisturbed for at least five minutes, uncovered. Doing so will allow the tofu to absorb the flavor of the broth and spices. Afterwards, one can thicken the sauce, our use it as-is. The longer the tofu sits in the sauce, the more flavorful it will become. On a personal note, I think tofu tastes best if it has a slightly tangy flavor to it. Try tofu in hot and sour soup, with a lemon-pepper marinade, or even slow cooked or grilled with barbecue sauce.
Firmness is another factor to consider, when using tofu in your meals. For substituting meat or ground meat, use a firm or extra firm variety. One may use medium or soft tofu for soups, and Asian-style stir-fries where the tofu is the main ingredient. Silken tofu should be reserved for dips, smoothies, and sauces, unless indicated otherwise. Happy cooking!
Hot and Sour Soup
Serves about 4
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots
1/4 cup sliced shiitake or other available mushroom
1 cup medium firmness tofu, in small cubes or strips
2-4 tablespoons low-sodium tamari or soy sauce, to suit taste
1-3 tablespoons white vinegar, to suit taste
1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce, to suit taste
black pepper, to suit taste
4 large eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons corn starch, mixed into a little bit of water (for thickening)
1) In a medium pot, bring broth to a boil, and add bamboo shoots, mushrooms, tofu, tamari, vinegar, black pepper, and Tabasco sauce. Adjust seasonings to suit taste. lower heat to medium, and slowly add a little bit of the corn starch mixture to the hot soup, until desired consistency is obtained, usually that of light gravy.
2) Slowly add half the beaten eggs, wait a few seconds, and gently stir the soup one rotation to create "egg drops." The more you stir, the smaller the egg drops will be. Add the remainder of the eggs and repeat.
Noodles in Thai Peanut Sauce
serves about 4
1 lb Chinese lo mein noodles, or linguine
1/4 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
3 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch length of ginger, peeled and smashed (or 1 tsp ground ginger)
1 tablespoons sugar or honey
1 teaspoons Asian style chili sauce
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 lb medium firmness tofu, diced
Shredded carrots, julienned cucumber, chopped peanuts (for garnish)
1. In a measuring cup, mix orange juice, toasted sesame oil, peanut butter, soy sauce or tamari, garlic, 1 ginger, sugar, and chili sauce. If mixture is too thick, add more orange juice. If it is too thin, add more peanut butter.
2. In a hot wok, pour in peanut sauce and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium and allow to simmer for 2 minutes. Add tofu and toss gently in sauce. Simmer for 3 - 5 minutes. Add cooked noodles and toss to coat. Sprinkle with shredded cucumbers or diced bell peppers. Garnish with chopped roasted peanuts.
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For more tofu recipes, please visit my blog, I Speak Food, at www.allaya.com
Photos are for illustrative purposes only.